When Nazis Took All the Bells

Between 1939 and 1945, the National Socialist German Workers' Party under Adolf Hitler – the Nazis – confiscated over 175,000 bells from towers throughout Europe. That staggering sum is only part of the devastation and horror exacted by the Nazis during World War II, but it speaks to the plundering of identity and soul that made the Nazi occupation so catastrophic. 

Much was destroyed during World War II. From human lives to cultural artifacts, the Nazis were unrelenting in their conquest. But to feed their war machine and keep their armies outfitted, the Nazis needed vast quantities of metals – and like plucking fruit from a tree, they turned to peaceable, defenseless bell towers to pillage their scrap.

Bells are composed of bronze, an alloy of roughly four parts copper to one part tin. Both metals were crucial to the German armament industry. Nations pleaded for their bells to be spared, but in blatant indifference to the 1907 Hague Convention treaty that prohibited such wartime conduct, they were ignored. In defiance, some communities attempted to hide their bells, often by burying them in surrounding grounds or on parishioners’ land. This, however, had to be completed before Nazis took a local inventory and in collusion with the presiding clergy. It was a grave risk.

Workers in Prague sort confiscated bells for shipment to Germany

Image: Workers in Prague sort confiscated bells for shipment to Germany, 1942. Between 1941 and 1943, about 12,000 bells were taken from Czech towers. Courtesy: Archive of Petr Rudolf Manoušek.

The Nazis graded or categorized bells into four groups, A through D, based on their historical or cultural value. “A” bells were cast within the preceding ninety years and therefore generally considered without merit. They were the first to be destroyed. Similarly, “B” bells and then “C” bells were sent for smelting. “D” bells, or those cast before 1740, were treated more like art than commodity and preserved for their noble virtues, which the Nazis relied upon to build a façade of legitimacy. Often, the Nazis would allow one bell of insignificant size to remain in a tower, for the village or community to ring in emergency. The rest were transformed into weapons of war.

Confiscated bells from across the Third Reich’s conquered territories were funneled into Germany for processing – from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the USSR, and Yugoslavia. The Vatican, in a prewar agreement with Mussolini’s government, sought to preserve at least half of the bells in church towers. This, of course, all but guaranteed the other half would be claimed for war industries.

Plundered bells of World War II amass at Hamburg Harbor

Image: Plundered bells amass at Hamburg Harbor, 1944. Courtesy: Germanisches Nationalmuseum. 

Toward the end of the war, not even German bells were spared requisition. The bells made their way via river and rail to enormous Glockenfriedhöfe, or bell cemeteries, where they were broken down and melted into large bronze ingots, before being sent along to refineries for further processing. The two largest refineries were just outside the port city of Hamburg in northern Germany. There, the deluge of bells was reduced to component metals: mostly copper and tin, but also lead, zinc, silver, and gold. Tin, especially, became shell casings and armaments.

Of the 175,000 bells seized, postwar figures estimate that over 150,000 were destroyed. With bombings and air raids leveling additional towers throughout the war, the number of lost bells is even greater. Following the armistice, the Vatican Commission for the Restoration of Bells and the Inter-Allied Commission on the Wartime Preservation of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (known more commonly as the Monuments Men) sought to repatriate bells to their original owners, but that process is ongoing. Most were lost entirely, some remain hidden or buried, and others are said to still reside in Hamburg warehouses. 

Bells from World War II make news even today, when the odd one is unearthed or rediscovered. In some churches in Germany, congregations are continuing to reckon with the country’s dark past. A few bells cast in the 1930s and emblazoned with the swastika or a tribute to Adolf Hitler still hang in local bell towers – causing a rift between cash-strapped churches who can’t afford to replace them and concerned citizens. Some two dozen of these bells have been discovered and removed in recent years.

Bells are the very heartbeat of a community, but in the war years of 1939 to 1945, that pulse fell silent across Europe. 

Cover image: American Lieutenant Benjamin Benetasky of New York City inspects Belgian bells seized by the Nazis and intended to be converted into war materials, Sept. 12, 1944. Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration.